“Picture your mind as a house with rooms,” Sharon tells him. “There is a part which is reserved solely for the chain, and that alone is where you must confine it. You are the master–” and she lifts her cup, and even that small clattering sound echoes in his skull like a gunshot– “and you must be certain to never let it see your weakness.”
“Do be careful, Gilbert,” Break says, as he leaves. The day is overcast, and there are long shadows across his thin face. “It’d be terribly inconvenient to find someone else.”
When he wakes, his brother is by his side.
Gil feels his movement before seeing him: a paler patch of shadow resolves into Vincent’s long pale hair, and the rustles of his long coat bring with it the smell of dry herbs and sharp musks. Gil has learned not to ask: there are certain aspects of his brother’s methods that he knows he’ll remain content with never knowing. Maybe he’s just tired, still disoriented and in pain from the contracting ceremony, but he swears he can hear the clicking sound of clawed feet echoing in Vincent’s soft footsteps, and even through gloves and Gil’s nightshirt, his brother’s fingers are long and cold.
“Welcome home,” says Vincent, and he breathes something into the words that makes Gil’s skin crawl. “Welcome home, my brother–”
But under that, Gil hears: helookstirediwanttotouchhimholdhimkeephimminesotiredbrotheriwant– and he pulls away with a jerk. The second voice falls silent, but Vince’s habitually sleepy-eyed look is replaced with one of genuine surprise.
“Brother?” He reaches out again. “What–”
Gil flinches back. Through eyes half-closed in a cringe, he watches Vincent’s hand hesitate, a hairsbreadth away — his skin tingles from the anticipation of a touch that never quite connects. A whole wealth of emotions flicker through Vincent’s eyes, then are shuttered under a layer of smiling concern.
“Your head must be bothering you,” he says. He rises to his feet. “I’ll see about fetching you water.”
Silent-footed as a cat, he leaves, and he takes with him the pressure sitting heavily there dead-center of Gil’s chest. Gil turns his head to watch his brother go, and only breathes when the door closes quietly. He lifts up his left hand and stares at the palm. The seal itself is a tiny thing — a stretch of darker skin across his palm, shaped vaguely like a bird’s pinion-feather. To the touch it’s ice-cold, enough to numb his fingers a bit.
This is the power that is now his. This is the power that he’s worked nearly ten years to obtain.
This is the power that will save Oz.
Gil closes his eyes and presses his lips to the seal. It makes his lips burn.
“There isn’t much known about Raven,” Sharon says, as she hands him a slim packet. “But he’s old, Gilbert; older than most that we have documented. He’ll trick you if you’re not careful.”
There is a heavy black door which swings open to a long flight of stairs that lead down, down, down. It’s pitch-dark, but he finds himself able to pick his footing easily. Down he goes, and somewhere he knows that this isn’t right, this isn’t proper, but it’s suppressed — the panic that should be bubbling up is muted and sunk down low in his chest.
At the bottom of the stairs is another door. He opens this and steps into a parlor. It’s a little smaller than the one his adopted mother entertains guests in, but the decorations are very different: a few decades out of fashion, too heavy with the flares on the draperies and too sharp and angular with the lines to be up to date. There is a table covered with an off-white cloth and set with tea, and there is a man at the window. The muted light through the curtains obscures his face, but his nose is sharp and beaky and his eyes are round and black and reflect nothing.
“Aha,” says the man. “So it is you.”
“You’re,” Gil says, and then stops. There are feathers stuck around the brim of the man’s hat, at crazy angles, like someone had taken their hand to a bird’s wing and run it down the wrong way. The man’s feet taper into three shiny black claws each, splayed wide as though for balance. Gil knows who this is; he’s known for years.
Raven tips his hat. His smile is very white and very sharp in his already-lean face. “Master,” he says mockingly. “Sit. Have some tea. It’s been a long day for you, hasn’t it?”
Gil doesn’t move from where he stands. His hand is so cold it aches, but he flexes his fingers and otherwise ignores it. “What am I doing here?” he asks, and keeps his voice low and even. “What do you want?”
Raven laughs. It’s not a pleasant sound.
“The question is,” he says, “what do you want? Master,” and the last is so mocking that Gil bristles. It’s the tone the Nightlay servants use when addressing him, simpering and sincere only on the surface — as if smiles and flatteries would be enough to hide the contempt that lies just beneath. Don’t forget your roots; don’t assume too much of yourself; you were a servant first, bastard nameless dog to those lily-white Vesalius bastards–
“My,” says Raven, and suddenly he’s there and he isn’t; and then he is again, there in Gil’s face and looming. Up close the craggy lines and angles of his face are quite clear; he’s handsome, in a rough-edged unrefined way. His breath smells like dust and ash and something sickly-sweet. Gil recoils from it. Raven follows. They repeat this awkward dance several times, until Gil’s shoulders hit the wall. Raven is taller than him, leaning down and smiling his sharp white smile.
“Don’t be unkind, Master,” Raven goes on, as if there hadn’t been a long peculiar pause in between. He leans and braces his weight against the wall on one hand, and Gil finds himself bracketed in. “I’m yours, after all. I do what you tell me. That’s what the contract is, isn’t it?” His other hand snakes out, lightning-fast, and Gil makes a startled noise as his wrist is caught and lifted. The black seal on his hand looks all the more stark now, part of his skin and yet separate, all the more obvious for Raven’s proximity. Those round black eyes blink, and then Raven dips his head and bites gently at the heel of Gil’s palm. His teeth are sharp as they look.
“You–!” Gil yanks at his hand, but finds it trapped. “What the hell–”
Raven laughs. He meets Gil’s eyes, unblinking, and traces the bottom of the seal on Gil’s palm with his tongue. His mouth is shockingly warm.
“Do you know why a chain contracts with a human?” he asks.
Gil jerks harder at his hand, breathing hard, and succeeds in nothing but exerting himself.
“When the contract’s time limit ends, the human becomes the chain’s prey.” Raven is still smiling, drawing his tongue up the length of the seal, tracing each feathered line and edge up to the base of his fingers. “But Pandora found a way around that, didn’t they.”
Gil makes an outraged noise. “You’re not suggesting–”
Raven laughs. He bites the tip of Gil’s index finger lightly. “I’m hungry,” he says. “Some chains might satisfied with little bits and pieces, but I …” He shifts, and his knee presses between Gil’s legs in hard deliberate pressure. “I prefer a bit more.”
“You owe me this much, don’t you think?” Raven purrs. “Master.”
Gil draws in the breath to protest. Raven laughs and lays a finger against his lips.
“I’m using you,” he says soothingly. “Just like you’re using me. Isn’t that what the Hatter said?”
“The Hatter–?” Gil blinks, then freezes. “You mean, Break … ?”
Raven laughs. He lets go of Gil’s wrist and dips his hand down, undoing the fastenings to Gil’s trousers with surprisingly dexterous ease. “He’s not the sort to kiss and tell, the Hatter,” he says. “Perhaps you should ask the contractor. I’m sure that would be quite the face to see.”
“He’d never,” Gil begins, then jerks with a strangled noise as Raven’s hand wraps smoothly around his cock and pulls it free. His head jerks back and hits the wall, and he shoves hard at Raven’s chest. Instead of being rebuffed, though, Raven leans in, and his mouth is hot against Gil’s ear.
“As I said,” Raven purrs, “Hatter’s not the one to ever say.”
Before Gil can gather his scattered wits to protest again, Raven sinks down before him. Gil makes another sharp noise and snaps his hand out, just as he was taught (sharp hard blow, go for the nose, break it properly and you can use the broken pieces to kill a man), and succeeds only in displacing Raven’s hat. Before he can recover, there is wet heat swallowing him down, and all he can do is make embarrassing sharp noises, shaking as Raven pins his hips to the wall.
“No,” he says, or tries to say, or thinks he wants to say; all that comes out is a low rough noise that tapers into panting. Raven’s fingers are long and thin and tipped with sharp nails, five points of pressure on each hip; his mouth is hot and full of sharp teeth. It makes obscene wet sounds as it moves, and Gil tries hard not to listen but — but —
It takes him by surprise: sharp and brief and almost brutal; Gil’s hand flails out blindly and his fingers sink into feathery-fine dark hair. There is a strangled, cut-off name in his throat, one that he never manages to vocalize before he swallows it. Raven swallows everything, and it feels like there are secrets draining out of him as shakes and tries to recover himself. Gil’s knees go weak, then buckle; he slides slowly down the wall and into Raven’s open arms.
“There,” Raven says, and his tone is so smug, so pleased, that Gil’s skin crawls all over again. “It’s a start.”
He looks up, blinking bleary eyes. “A start for–”
Raven kisses him then, hard, biting on his lip and holding it between his pointed teeth for a five-count before letting go.
“A start,” Raven says, and–
“To tell the truth, I didn’t really expect you’d be able to obtain Raven,” Break says, and there is light in his white hair, lighting his one red eye. He smiles and it almost looks genuine.
Gil looks at him and wonders about the chain controlled by those long fingers; he wonders about Sharon and her delicate smile as she hands him a cup of tea — he wonders about Vincent and the mouse that nods sleepily over his shoulder whenever it appears.
He wonders, but he never asks. And at night, before he sleeps, he kisses the seal again, like a prayer for the day his sin will be erased.